London: Stemming fungal diseases in the world`s five most important crops could feed more than 600 million people, according to a new study.
Fungal infections destroy 125 million tonnes of rice, wheat, maize, potatoes and soybeans each year, which could otherwise be used to feed the world`s hungry. They account for the bulk of calories consumed by people.
The data reviewed by Oxford and Imperial College scientists suggests that an emerging species of fungus is behind the problem in 70 percent of cases where infectious disease causes the extinction of a type of animal or plant.
They are calling for new solutions to prevent the proliferation of existing and emerging fungal infections in plants and animals in order to prevent further loss of biodiversity and food shortages in the future, the journal Nature reports.
Matthew Fisher, from the Imperial`s School of Public Health, London, and study co-author, said: "The alarming increase in plant and animal deaths caused by new types of fungal disease shows that we are rapidly heading towards a world where the `rotters` are the winners."
The damage caused by fungi to rice, wheat and maize alone costs global agriculture $60 billion per year. The effects are disproportionately catastrophic for those in the developing world, where 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day, and rely most heavily on these low-cost foods, according to an Oxford and Imperial statement.
Diseases like rice blast, soybean rust, stem rust in wheat, corn smut in maize and late blight in potatoes affect more than just productivity; many have wide ranging socio-economic costs.
Trees lost or damaged by fungi fail to absorb 230-580 megatonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), equivalent to 0.07 percent of global atmospheric CO2, an effect the scientists say is likely to aggravate the greenhouse effect.
The study shows how instances of fungal diseases have been increasing in severity and scale since the middle of the 20th century, thanks to trade and travel, and now pose a serious danger to global food security, biodiversity and ecosystem health.